‘Das ist Karfreitagzauber, Herr’. So Gurnemanz assures Parsifal in Act 3 of Wagner’s last opera, when the redeemer-hero gazes in wonder upon a flower-meadow, which presents so innocent a contrast with the poisonous, fleeting charms of Klingsor’s Flowermaidens.
But what does Gurnemanz really mean? ‘Zauber’, magic, is Klingsor’s domain, not that of the Grail. Listen to it in your head or on a recording, and the phrase tends to carry an avuncular authority usually thought typical of the old man, for whom this is his finest moment in the opera’s longest role. A little more thought uncovers a tension in that phrase that could only come from one who has seen and felt the pull of both unholy magic and noble faith.
In the latest issue of The Wagner Journal I have briefly explored that tension in the character of Gurnemanz, who is usually overlooked as a complex character of his own in favour of Amfortas and Kundry. According to the (generally well-researched) cast books of the Royal Opera, and Grove, he is ‘a veteran knight of the Grail’. For René Pape, who sang the role in the latest ROH production, he is ‘the highest knight of all’ but then, he would be. The production team wrote a synopsis which is more non-committal: ‘a senior member of the Grail community’, with overtones of authority and incipient senility that place him somewhere between Kenneth Clarke QC MP and Victor Meldrew.
The composer did not think of his character this way. In his 1865 sketch, reproduced in The Brown Book, he writes: ‘Es giebt aber einen alten Waffenknecht Titurels, Gurnemans, der jetzt noch Anfortas treulich dient.’ (But there is Gurnemans, an old squire of Titurel’s, still loyally serving Anfortas.) What follows is a brief argument that we should take Wagner at his word, at least in this instance; that Gurnemanz acts as a squire, not a knight; that this is significant for a modern understanding of the opera. In the medieval world of the Ritterschaft at Monsalvat, the Knights who guard the grail are Ritter; they are served and assisted by Knappen or squires, young men who bear the Knights’ shields (Waffenknecht), who may also (though not necessarily) be engaged in training to become knights themselves.
You can read the rest of the article here. Alas, time did not become space for me as it does for the Knights of the Grail, to quote another of Gurnemanz’s pseudo-mystical pronouncements, and I ran out of both when making a brief reference to the figure of the yurodivy, or ‘holy fool’. Because from the opera’s outset we are told that the Kingdom of the Grail is awaiting redemption which can only arrive in the form of ‘Der reine Tor’ – a pure fool – then the figure of Parsifal himself has conveniently filled that hole in critical reception. But holy and pure do not mean the same thing at all.
A yurodivy in the Russian tradition from which the word derives is a fool for Christ; one who appears strange and mad to figures on earth because he cleaves to beliefs which others find uncomfortable. The titled un-named Fools who offer Job’s comfort to Boris Godunov and King Lear speak in riddles. (Gurnemanz is not once addressed by name. The closest is the affectionate/patronising ‘Väterchen’ from the Third Squire). They mock those in authority over them under the mask of obscure or elliptical speech, and the rulers in turn tolerate them as a prick to their conscience. None of this fits the character of Parsifal, nor Gurnemanz if we persist in seeing him as a knight, wearing authority like a long-service medal. Thus we will overlook the distance in the relationship between Gurnemanz and Amfortas; his hopeless nostalgia for a time past, when Titurel was king and everything was simple; and finally, the power of his climactic submission to Parsifal as a ‘Knecht’ or slave – which is no less a fulfilment of destiny than Parsifal’s kingship or Amfortas’s release from pain, and all the more challenging and uncomfortable to our sensibilities for being willed and embraced as such. If, however, we see Gurnemanz in the tradition represented by the devious, low-born, ragged-trousered fellows of Mussorgsky and Shakespeare, speeches of his that seemed pompous or long-winded become more teasing and uncertain, and we begin to do him dramatic justice.